I wasn’t expecting such a medical book. But I guess I should’ve, since Verghese is Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine (according to Wikipedia). He also has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in case those kinds of qualifications matter to you. And having landed on his Wikipedia page, I realised how autobiographical a book this is. For Verghese was born and brought up in Ethiopia, and his medical training there was interrupted by a military coup, resulting in his – and his family’s – move to the United States.
Cutting for Stone’s main character Marion Stone has a similar background, but he also has a twin named Shiva. And they were born to Sister Mary Joseph Praise (yup, she’s a nun), who dies of complications of her pregnancy (a rather well hidden pregnancy at that). The twins are brought up by Hema and Ghosh, both doctors at Mission Hospital (which everyone knows as ‘Missing’), where Sister Mary worked.
Hema is one tough cookie. I loved her feistiness and how she grabs life by the balls (in one case, literally). How I wished there were more of a focus on her! But this unfortunately isn’t her story, it is Marion’s – and sort of Shiva’s, since the two cannot be completely separated – as he grows up in Ethiopia, goes to medical school, becomes a doctor, and ends up in America. Cutting For Stone is also very much a story of Ethiopia. I cannot imagine a more interesting setting for this tale. The food, the lifestyle, the culture, the political backdrop. That is what made the book for me.
The story worked fine (although perhaps it had too much medical knowledge invested in it – Verghese’s passion for his field is rather obvious!), until we approach the ending, which seemed too inevitable, too thought out. For me, the best part of the novel was in its earlier stages, when Marion was growing up in Ethiopia, where we are getting to know all the other characters, and not just the twins. In the end, I wasn’t as swept away by this story as I expected to be. That’s the thing about bookish expectations, isn’t it?